Aisha Aliyu-Bima’s self-effacing demeanour belies her lustrous antecedents in the liberal arts, a background that stands her in good stead for her recent selection for a curator project at the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art at the Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Typically donning a headscarf, Aisha Aliyu-Bima proudly wore her modesty on her sleeve as she warmed to the ongoing conversation that barmy Wednesday, April 19 evening. Her serene, almost Zen-like demeanour was an eloquent testament to her observance of her religion’s month of abstinence.
Of course, she couldn’t have been oblivious to the dual role Fate had recently bestowed upon her—as the poster girl of her generation and a voice for creatives of Northern Nigerian extraction—especially since her recent selection by the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art at the
Pan-Atlantic University in Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos, for a curatorial project alongside another candidate. This is one reason why she believes that she has a part to play in promoting artists and art from Northern Nigeria, which, in her opinion, have been hitherto underexplored. “When art doesn’t get seen, it doesn’t get explored,” she reasoned, echoing Aristotelian logic. “When it doesn’t get explored, it doesn’t develop, and when it doesn’t develop, it dies out.”
There is, of course, an economic side to the scenario. Whereas there is still what she called an apparent “pariahfication” of art in Nigeria’s north, many institutions and individuals in the south make a living from it. “So we need support from both governments and individuals to revive and revitalise our rich artistic heritage, to support those working with the inspiration of that, and to look at it as a means of economic diversification and cultural promotion,” she continued. “Because when we say Naija to the world, it’s not just the proliferation of afrobeats; there is also Kannywood, there’s Hausa music, there’s art, and there are countries and societies that have a deep appreciation of the Northern creative output and are willing to engage with it.”
Expressing delight at the emergence of a new generation of Northern Nigerian curators and writers like Sabo Kpade, Sada Malumfashi, Fareeda Abdulkareem, Summaya Ja’eh, Blessing Tarfa, Ganeeyah Sani, and Ponchang Kumven, she lauded them for blazing new trails for curating and cultural appreciation of the Northern Nigerian artistic output.
Back to her recent selection by the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, which is more often known by its initials YSMA. She responded to an open call posted on Instagram by the museum and used a project she was working on at the time to secure one of the two opening slots. “I thought their space would be the ideal place to present work of this scale and challenge,” she told her interlocutor.
Meanwhile, the ambience at Mamba Café, a mostly open-air pub tucked away in a cosy corner of the Maitama Amusement Park, seemed custom-made for this evening’s chit-chat. For starters, there weren’t many people about, which foreclosed the obtrusive chatter of customers in the background or possible eavesdropping on her chat with her mentor, Nduwhite Ahanonu, and her interviewer. Of course, the fact that this was one of the numerous sites for the Abuja Open House last year, in which she was a prominent dramatis personae, added a nostalgic dimension to the setting.
A quick rewind to the Abuja Open House 2022: Aliyu-Bima had curated one of its main exhibitions, titled Convergence, which featured two young Northern Nigerian artists, Idris Abdulwahab and Salim Abdulrazaq, at the Institut Français. Both artists, she explained, have been her friends for a long time. “I always thought their work deserved more visibility. However, due to the shortage of art spaces in the North and also curators with a Northern Nigerian focus, it seemed like that wasn’t going to happen. So I was truly excited when the application panel saw my proposal and felt it was worth being brought to life.”
Complementing her curatorial input at the premium art event was her role as the programme manager, a job she deemed both challenging and enthralling. “Being at the back end of an event of such scale, with so many moving parts, taught me the importance of resourcefulness and being dynamic. It was also so great working with a team that was committed to seeing our goal achieved and was ready to contribute in their own way.”
Her selection earlier that year—precisely, sometime in May—as the Institut Français curatorial laureate turned out to be an Open Sesame for a slew of other opportunities, one of which was working with the Abuja-based International Institute for Creative Development (IICD) Centre, a multi-disciplinary experimental art space. “Its founder, Nduwhite Ndubisi Ahanonu, provided me with such direct mentorship in a space where I am constantly learning and putting those ideas into practice. Alongside that, the IICD curatorial classes have been of immense benefit, adding technical discipline to everything that I do. I think the IICD Centre is a one-of-a-kind space for any growing curator, providing the kind of rigorous learning, development, and kindness that are so important for a budding curator.”
Even as she hinted at the challenges of working at the IICD, she nonetheless acknowledged the tangible progress she had made in her curatorial career since her first day there.
The IICD Centre, meanwhile, positions itself as an art space that builds creative capacity for open thematic expression within the context contemporary art practice. “Our positioning is in sustainable creative programmes, training, workshops, and curated exhibitions,” according to Ahanonu. “We also provide technical assistance for creating and managing cultural exchange programmes that seek to advance cultural mediation, education and social development.”
Besides mentoring Aliyu-Bima as one of its protegées, the IICD has also trained two Abuja-based curators. Ahanonu later outlined its plans to offer unique hybrid international curatorial classes starting this summer, after a series of curatorial workshops and artists’ residencies. The centre, which is currently offering internal training for its associate curators and staff as a pre-launch of the IICD International Curatorial Studies, so far preens itself on achievements, which include developing a growth map for the cultural scene in Abuja, pioneering upcycling workshop in collaboration with the US Embassy in Abuja, initiating and self-funding Abuja’s first-ever international srtist’s residency programme, holding annual portfolio reviews with internationally established curators in partnership with Institut Français and using films as cultural diplomacy tools, in collaboration with the US Embassy and Transcorp Hilton Hotel Abuja for deepening social conversation, and guaranteeing civil interaction consistently.
Of course, there is also the Abuja Open House, which, initiated in collaboration with the US Embassy, has since morphed into Abuja’s biggest annual art event. “I also think an event like Abuja Open House is necessary to spotlight the Abuja creative space and promote collaboration and cultural engagement,” Aliyu-Bima added.
The Hungary-trained graduate of medicine, who considers writing to be her “first love,” is eager to begin working on her curatorial project with the YSMA. “I am grateful to the selection team for taking a chance on the idea I presented,” she enthused. “At the YSMA, I hope to present a project that educates people and really opens their eyes to the possibilities around them.”
She, however, admitted that there could be a penumbra of uncertainty surrounding the introduction of new perspectives. Still, she hopes they will be well received by the public. Exposure to world histories, geographies, and cultures from a young age, as well as growing up in a multicultural society in an intellectually engaging setting, seem to have adequately prepared her for her current calling. Additionally, she had to watch as her birthplace, Jos, became serially engulfed in a string of crises; an unfortunate turn of events served as fodder for her creative mill.
She completed her high school education at the then-ABTI Academy, now known as AUN (American University Nigeria Academy), in Yola, where she was exposed to a lot of art and literature in both the required and optional activities. This was in addition to her participation in a classical music club where students gathered to hear music by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt, and other renowned composers. She occasionally had conversations about art with the club’s patron, Dr. Duncan Shaw. Additionally, Vincent Odeh, her sculpture instructor, introduced her to Nigerian art outside of the required curriculum. “By the time I moved to Europe for university, I had a long list of things I wanted to see in the museums, and interestingly enough, most of them were African art. The first time I saw Nok terracotta outside of blurry textbook images was in Europe.”
Encountering many traditional European artists’ works for the first time also helped her understand the level of creative and cultural appreciation that existed in other parts of the world. Although she wasn’t sure about ‘how’ at the time, she was certain that she wanted to see this level of cultural appreciation and representation in her own part of the world.